Modernizing the Story: Contextualizing the Story of Prometheus

Who was Prometheus?

 Prometheus and vulture via Fine Art America

Prometheus and vulture via Fine Art America

Firstly, I want to contextualize Prometheus as both a figure and a term. As a figure, Prometheus in Greek Mythology brought fire to mankind, the Olympians, amidst the battle of Titans and Olympians led by Zeus in an attempt to rule over all the heavens. Initially, Prometheus was fighting alongside the Titans as a primary ringleader, but the Titans to wont to listen to his advice and use trickery on the Olympians to win the war. Thus, Prometheus joined the side of the Olympians. However, upon gifting mankind fire, Zeus became enraged and condemned Prometheus to life of eternal hell: everyday he would have his liver eaten by (either a vulture or eagle, as the story allots both, although in context of the eagle connotes Zeus being the one eating the liver) as he is chained to a rock, and everyday his liver would regrow and the process would recommence.

In terms of his namesake, Prometheus means "forethought." This would elude to his knowing of the effects of his actions and trickery against the Titans. In doing so, the question raised is did he do it despite his knowing? In reading the poem "Prometheus" by Lord Byron, written in 1816, we can conclude a few things on behalf of Prometheus. 

Adaptations and Appeals to the Romantic Era: Looking at the Modern

Lord Byron’s poem “Prometheus” is based off of the Greek mythological legend. In the poem, Byron is exemplifying Prometheus’s character as the theme of defiance and constancy. The perception of Eternity is magnified to include the terms wretched and torture to give credence to the perpetual boon Prometheus is forced to endure. Stanza II goes into detail, stating:

Titan! to thee the strife was given

Between the suffering and the will,

Which torture where they cannot kill;

And the inexorable Heaven,

And the deaf tyranny of Fate,

The ruling principle of Hate,

Which for its pleasure doth create

The things it may annilate,

Refus’d thee even the boon to die:

The wretched gift of Eternity

Was thine — and thou hast borne it well. (2.1-11)

The capitalization of Heaven, Fate, Hate, and Eternity provide context behind Byron’s purpose for their inclusion into the poem. Heaven is capitalized for religious design, but Fate and Hate provide a different context and allude to Greek mythology once more. The Three Fates of mythology, whom cross multiple cultures and come in various forms, are probably most known as the three sisters that spin the thread of life for each individual. The context here in regards to Prometheus is interesting concerning his projected Eternity. However, if we put the story of the Three Fates into context with the story of Prometheus, we see why Byron would include them within his poem. For one, Zeus is the one to condemn Prometheus for his “Godlike crime” for eternal suffering (3.1). However, Zeus does not reign power over the Three Fates, but rather speaks in unison with them on the death of someone — he does not have power of the death or life of that person. The Three Fates reign jurisdiction over this portion of all kind, and therefore would be able to conquer Zeus’s design. At the end of Byron’s poem, he closes with “Triumphant where it dares defy, / And making Death a Victory” (3.24-5). Byron is alluding to the previously mentioned Man in the same stanza (“Like thee, Man is in part divine, / A troubled stream from a pure source; / And Man in portions can foresee / His own funereal destiny” (3.13-6)), but also alluding to Prometheus’s ability to overcome the perpetual suffering endowed him from his act of kindness unto mankind in both eventual death or freedom (death may serve as a form of freedom as it serves as a form of Victory).

Byron as Prometheus

It may be read into the text that Byron is placing himself in the shoes of Prometheus himself. However, it may also be read that Prometheus is symbolic for many figures and alludes to the anti-hero often perpetuated during the Romantic era for the purpose of giving the people someone to attribute their aspiration for change. This individual has come in many forms, such as Robin Hood, and is positioned as an individual that commits crimes but for good reason or to do good for the people.

In this same way we may look at Prometheus. He stole fire from the Titans and gave it to mankind, therefore breaking away the connotations associated with civilizations absent of fire as barbaric and infantile. In doing so, not only did he aid the Olympians in the war against the Titans (as mentioned prior), but he stepped into that symbolic role of the anti-hero figure so instrumental to the radicalization of society and ways of life.

 In stepping into this role, Byron is not becoming the anti-hero but his poem rather alludes to the oppression of figures in power to those below. His commentary becomes political and speaks to his own role in speaking against the House of Lords in both satirical commentary and poetic form. Many of his speeches spoke out on the subject of injustice towards working peoples, specifically speaking on the automaton and the Luddites, and even on the subject of Catholic emancipation.

The end of prometheus

In context to Prometheus’s story from a mythological point of view, there are multiple renditions of resolutions that have complimented his eternal suffering. In some stories he is freed by Heracles, in others he is left to endure. However, the purpose of using Prometheus within the Romantic era is not only to fetish this idea of the anti-hero, but to comment on the forwards progression of mankind of that all effort to improve the human condition may be for naught. However, by contextualizing the story of Prometheus with mythological understanding and Romantic background, it can be understood that Prometheus’s story also speaks to the oppression felt by many of these Romantic writers to write against the grain and produce works that were not specifically canon.

Reference:

Byron, Lord. “Prometheus.” Romanticism: An Anthology, 4th ed., edited by Duncan Wu, 2012, pp. 912-3.